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volocopter: Uber-like services in the sky may soon be a reality

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NEW DELHI: Forget autonomous cars — your next taxi might whiz you across town through the air.

Volocopter GmbH, a German startup backed by Intel Corp. and Daimler AG, has built a drone-like electric helicopter to ferry travelers across city skies. The company expects to offer its first commercial trips in the next three to five years, after completing test flights in Dubai and Las Vegas. It’s now seeking at least $100 million to gear up manufacturing of the flying taxis.

Volocopter is in talks with new and current investors to raise the funds “as soon as possible,” Chief Executive Officer Florian Reuter said in an interview, sitting inside a sleek white example of the drone parked in downtown Berlin. “We want to be the world’s first commercial air taxi service.”

Raising money is just one facet of the race to conquer local skies. Multiple aviation and technology companies, from planemaker Boeing Co. to a startup backed by Larry Page, are working on aircraft that could be used as robotic taxis, capable of landing on urban rooftops or special pods to pick up passengers who want to avoid traffic. Another hurdle is convincing regulators it’s a good idea to have these machines traveling over populated areas.

Volocopter says it’s furthest along with the technology and working with regulators — it already has a provisional license from German aviation authorities and has completed an autonomous flight in Dubai, a city that seeks to make a quarter of its transport autonomous by 2030.

A Volocopter looks like a drone on steroids. It’s a sleek machine with 18 rotors and two seats — either for a pilot and a passenger, or for two travelers in remote-controlled or autonomous flight mode. The company claims the drones are so quiet that you can’t hear them over city noise from 100 meters away.

Volocopter plans to build a four-seater and is open to autonomously transport parcels, which its product could do with “very few modifications,” Reuter said. With more scale, there’s no reason why production of a Volocopter should cost more than an upscale taxi, for example a Mercedes-Benz E class, the CEO said.

Mercedes parent Daimler led a 25 million-euro ($29 million) funding round last August.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich boarded a Volocopter in December for a short test flight in an exhibition hall near Munich. While Intel is an investor, the CEO sounded like a genuine fan.

“That was the best flight I ever had,” Krzanich said. “Everyone will fly in one of these someday.”

Updated: June 7, 2018 — 10:32 am

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